Heroes, Villains, and Others

This is more or less a riff on three of the panels I was on at Ravencon: Writing Believable Villains, the Shrinking of the American Hero, and Writing the Other. The three topics have a lot of overlap, so I figure I’ll expound, ramble, and generally blather on about all three.

To start with the easy and obvious, writers are pretty much by definition odd. Which means that more so than most of the human species when we write someone who isn’t us we’re more or less by definition writing “the other” (yes, I did make that comment on the Writing the Other panel). And like all humans, we understand others through the lens of our shared humanity, so the weirder we are, the murkier and more distorted that lens gets.

This, children, is why research matters. Research is not going to tell us what emotions someone will feel – although, being human, we can make a guess – but it can tell us what the socially acceptable expression of those emotions might be. A man will grieve just as much when he loses a loved one no matter what culture he’s from – but if he’s from a culture that says men don’t cry he probably won’t cry much and might divert that grief into anger or into building something as a memorial or… who knows? A man from a culture where lots of tears and big noisy expositions of grief are expected is going to do all that. He might also move to anger or building something. The important thing here is that the fellow who’s expected to be stoic feels much the same emotions as the one who’s expected to be demonstrative. It’s his culture that decides how he acts.

This, ladies, gentlemen, and others, is why writing something Other is no big challenge. Hell, if I could manage to write Vlad the Impaler’s perspective (which is, frankly, about as close to alien as you’re going to get without a spaceship being involved somewhere) with a combination of research and figuring out what the culture and his circumstances would dictate, anyone can do it. Gay male… pfft. Honestly the panelists who were so busy focusing on sexuality and race are suffering from a lack of imagination. That inner-city black lesbian they considered so very Other grew up with the same technology and mass media and whatnot as I did. Maybe not quite the same, but close enough I can extrapolate easily enough. She almost certainly grew up with at least one loving parent-figure, and a fair chance at two. They might not have been all that functional, but they almost for sure did their best.

Now, try someone from a culture where anyplace you couldn’t walk to in a day might as well be a foreign country. And an environment where it’s normal for kids to be raised by Dad’s worst enemy with the threat they’ll be killed if Dad misbehaves. Where you hardly have any interaction with your mother – or any other females – after you’re five or so. Where “advanced technology” is cannons that might not explode if you give them enough time between firing. Where glass windows are expensive and precious. That modern day inner-city black lesbian seems kind of familiar by now, doesn’t she?

See, what makes Other is not genetics. It’s not sex or sexuality. It’s the lack of shared experience. Those much-derided dead white males from as little as three hundred years ago might as well have come from a different planet for how much we have in common with them. They really are Other. And six hundred years ago? Those dudes are really alien.

Now, of course, this feeds into the question of heroes and villains and how they work. After all, they’re points on the spectrum of Other so to speak. And with the exception of your elemental Evil (best avoided unless you keep it as a shadowy mysterious force that can be undone by your world’s equivalent of tossing a trinket into an active volcano) and the barking mad (not caused by stress or anything of the sort, please. That will give your books a quick flying lesson and put you on my Do Not Touch Not Even With A Ten Foot Barge Pole list), villains are – or bloody well should be – people who would be the hero if you wrote the book from their perspective (and if you ask any self-respecting villain, they’ll tell you that you damn well should be writing the book from their perspective).

I know whereof I speak. I am, after all, the woman who wrote Vlad the Impaler as the hero (he makes a rather compelling hero, actually. Honest, honorable, courageous… yeah that was that thing with kebabbing his enemies, but hey, everyone has their flaws, right? Besides, he was no worse than any of the other rulers of his era. The difference is he lost and he got shafted by all parties, complete with the fifteenth century version of trial by propaganda).

Anyway. Heroes, antiheroes, and villains are all on the same protagonist/antagonist spectrum. As characters they have goals. The “villain’s journey” is often something of an inversion of the hero’s journey, but can also be a separate hero’s journey that fails (unless of course your villain wins). The same broad classes of challenges happen, the villain will have one or more advisers who serve for him the same purpose as the hero’s mentor. He’ll get kicked out of his comfortable rut (probably when the hero defeats him). And so forth.

I really don’t distinguish that much. The villain as a character is someone whose purpose puts him at odds with the hero. Period. He could be a really nice guy, but that damned hero has gone and started a revolt against him and now he’s got to defend everything he worked so hard for and he can’t afford to act the way he wants to because the hero will treat it as a weakness and then he’ll lose it all (alternatively, he could be a right bastard. Being the hero and being the villain don’t necessarily mean someone is going to nice. Or nasty). Basically, they’re people first and “roles in the story” somewhere after that. Unless I’m doing the shadowy figure kind of villain I use in the Con books. Being sort-of mysteries, those work better if the culprit isn’t obvious from the start as it were (speaking of which, it would be nice if the culprit for #3 would bloody speak up and let me know what’s supposed to bloody well happen. Damn you muse! Put that drink with the umbrella down and come work. The rest of us have to, you don’t get to be immune. Um…)

So there you have it. For me, heroes, villains, minor characters… I don’t actually go looking for “Other” things to give them, and I don’t class them as heroes, villains, or whatever. They’re people first. Usually bloody irritating people who tell me things on a need-to-know basis and figure I don’t need to know until I actually write the scene where it happens.


  1. Slight disagreement on your play on “villains”.

    IMO what you’re talking about is protagonist vs. antagonist not hero vs. villain.

    To be a true villain, there has to be an element of “evil” in their motives and/or methods.

    I’ll agree that the “evil” has to be believable. None of those card-board characters who do “evil” for the sake of being “evil”.

    One example (IMO) of a believable evil group is David Weber’s Mesan Alignment. Much of what they say they want seems to be a “good idea” but part of their evil is that they’ve taken the path of “forcing” others to “do as they say”. Mind you, David Weber as made it clear that in spite of what they think, their plans have changed from a “good idea” into creating a “caste system” with them at the top.

    Mind you, when dealing with an “alien” society (which I agree Vlad’s time would be), the writer has to go more with the “protagonist vs. antagonist” model than the “hero vs. villain” model.

    It would be harder in that “world” to make one side believably more evil than the other side.

    On the gripping hand, what do I know. I have a hard time making my characters real even in my own mind.

    1. Ia gree. And one nice thing about the Mesans is that there will always be the potential for one (or more) of the bad guys to realize that they’ve been bad and seek restitution,

      The spots in Weber where I have to supsend my disbelief sometimes is that he makes many of the Mesan’s pawns unbelieveably stupid despite their apparent ability to rise up to senior levels in whatever government bureaucracy etc. they are in

      1. You have to compare it to “modern” politics. People have an enormous proclivity to fool themselves. Barrack Obama, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi being classic examples. Their version of “reality” is so far from anyone else’s that they don’t match in any points. Whether you agree with their basic premise or not, they keep denying the results of their policies. BO says. “Terrorism and Al Qaeda are on the run.” Boka Haram, for one replies. “Says you.”
        Academics still insist that Marxist-Leninism will work, despite 80+ years of trying to make it do just that, leading to massive failure *every single time.* They insist that it will work, because “it’s the way of the future.” *Every single country that tried Socialism, in any form, has failed.* But Academics insist that it will.
        The truth is that in each case, the person has invested so heavily in the “religion” of their choice (Mesa, Marxism, Socialism, etc.) that they cannot see anything that is counter to it. If you view their policies as a form of “religion,” and they are “true believers,” it makes sense. In the case of Weber’s Mesan apparatchik, they have succeeded by doing what they always did. They literally can’t believe that it won’t continue to work, the way it did for the last N hundred years.

        1. Precisely. The belief is so strong it overrides the evidence and they are convinced that what they’re doing is right, good and proper.

    2. Actually, with very few exceptions – and Weber’s Mesan Alignment are not among the exceptions – people and characters don’t ever think of themselves as evil. Or villains. They believe that what they’re doing is the right thing to do. If they’re instituting a caste system it’s because it’s the best way to run things (there’s plenty of people here and now who believe this).

  2. I keep suggesting a book to people from time to time. Printed oddly. @ stories side by side on the same page, occurring concurrently. The one on the left is the story of the TRUE PRINCE raised in a cabin in the wilderness by peasants loyal to the true king who was murdered along with the rest of his family by the evil usurper. The right-hand column would be the story of the RIGHTFUL PRINCE whose father saved the kingdom by rebelling against the evil king and taking his place, The true prince is of course fighting for truth justice and the kingdom way. the rightful prince is trying to save the kingdom from the evil return to despotic ways. Both heroes, both villains

    1. I’ll have to admit that the “True Prince” story line has been over-used. Mind you, I had a story idea where the “Rightful” ruler (to use your term) was titled “Lord Protector” and had lead the forces against the evil king. The Lord Protector was constantly worried about the return of the last remaining son of the evil king. My “twist” was that the True Prince knew how evil his father was and only returned to assist the Lord Protector against another group. [Very Big Grin]

    2. Oh, I like this idea. Depending on which side you read the “hero” and the “villain” switch places. Which, of course, is my point. Very few villains wouldn’t come across as heroes given the ability to have their story told from their perspective. Mind you, the necessary sacrifices might be a bit unpalatable to a fair few people – but a good enough author can make the person’s perspective seem a natural outcome of the character’s circumstances.

  3. If you will note. The two Princes were both heroes and their fathers were both Good kings. Simply a matter of interpretation. An usurper is not necessarily wrong. A true prince of the blood reclaiming the crown is not necessarily right. Despite what the stories say both sides are usually bad guys from the worms eye view of the peasant. BTW the ending I envision for the story? A final confrontation in single combat. They settle their armor, draw weapons, face each other across the field The End

    1. I hear what you’re saying *but* I prefer stories where the reader has a reason to “root for one side and not the other”.

      In Kate’s Vlad story, I go into the story with a bias against the Ottomans and enjoy Vlad’s struggle against them and against his darker self.

      With your idea, I’d want the “True Prince” to start learning “just how nasty his father was” and try to figure out “how do I get out of this mess” especially if he learns that his “supporters” are just as bad as his father was.

      1. the kink in our communications is that I could just as easily have the “true prince” and his followers be the angels. See What I am trying to convey is that the difference between a hero and a villain is often point of view. An example of this would be if you were lying helpless and I too an axe and chopped off your foot. Would that make me a villain? Maybe, maybe not. If your foot were trapped on a railroad track and the train was bearing down i could be the hero saving your life. You want a true good versus evil battle, Nothing wrong with that I prefer it myself. What I am looking at is that when dealing with humans most of us are neither good nor evil, that is all about culture and point of view

        1. The problem is that I get tired of certain people who insist that there are no such things as “good” and “evil”. While I agree that most human interactions don’t involve “good” and “evil”, I think we can go too far when we insist that “good” and “evil” don’t exist.

          1. I do not deny the existence of good and evil. I simply say that true evil is not normally the motivating factor of kingdoms

          2. No arguments there, Paul. The thing is that true good and true evil make for lousy characters. True evil is almost impossible to depict – what usually happens is petty kick the puppy bastardry or something equally banal (and let’s not forget the sheer banality of some of the last century’s most horrific evils: German engineering efficiency applied to the “problem” of eliminating their unwanted souls. Soviet bureaucracy. It’s horrible but it doesn’t make for enjoyable fiction).

        2. Exactly, Sanford. We’re all capable of stomach-churning evil and magnificent good – in extreme cases at the same time. And most of us believe we’re good. We have to or we’d hate ourselves.

    2. Ah, yes. And there would be no happy ending because no matter who won a hero loses.

  4. Sort of the Elizabethan era, where Cromwell was a hero to England while Elizabeth was Queen and his body dug up and put on trial by Charles (I believe) the King following her.
    I knew person that applied to be a police officer, when he went before the hiring board, he was given a tough verbal interview to see how he handled it. One should be able to remain calm, however, this board only hired the people that lost their temper and wanted to fight the board. The applicant was second generation Greek, so in the middle of the tirade, he allowed a tear to fall. That totally blew it, and he was not only dropped but they leaked the reason to the community. Working in any city position was dead.

    I agree with Kate on the subject matter. Books are being removed from Libraries because they contain words or concepts that are not politically correct. Someone mentioned that you can buy DVDs of cartoons but, said cartoons are the ones that survived the racism purges. Therefore, research is important to learn the culture of the time in order to give the reader as much as the writer a true understanding of the story.

    1. It’s been a while, but I think it was James II (son of Charles I, the one Cromwell fought against, grandson of James I, Elizabeth’s adopted heir) who had Cromwell’s remains disinterred and tried for treason, then “executed” on January 30, 1661. Not that Cromwell really cared, at that point, wherever he’d gone. Unless we’re talking about a different Cromwell, not Oliver the Lord Protector. (Henry VIII had a Cromwell, who met a bad end a little earlier than Elizabeth I’s reign.) [Olivercromwell.org has a nice timeline and information, as well as a plea to help save the Cromwell museum. It’s a nice little museum in a 16th century house Cromwell’s family owned near Ely.]

      Yeah, he’s a good example of a hero who’s a villain or super villain who makes Satan look kind, depending on your politics and if you are Irish or not.

      1. You mean Charles II. James II was his successor and the one who precipitated the glorious revolution in 1688. The Stewarts as kings of England alternated between adequate (esp with good advisors) and idiots (with bad advisors). In many respects I blame the advisors because I think that they led the monarch astray.

        1. You’re right. I keep forgetting if it is James, Charles, James, Charles, or J, C, C, J. Comes from spending too much time on the Continent. After all, when you have Louis XIII and XIV for baddies, and Kara Mustapha, who worries about that little island? 😉

          1. That little island that ended up being the world hegemony for a while? Gosh, I don’t know who worries about it.

    2. Er. Rob? I think you got your monarchs and your Cromwells a bit mixed up.
      Culture makes a hell of a difference to how things pan out – that guy you knew was shafted by cultural differences that would never get him any sympathy from the PC Police (Second generation from Greece = “white male”).

  5. Those much-derided dead white males from as little as three hundred years ago might as well have come from a different planet for how much we have in common with them. They really are Other. And six hundred years ago? Those dudes are really alien.

    In some ways I think the chanegs in the last 2 centuries is greater than any equivalent change in the millennia before (and arguably the same applies as we get into more recent times in the developed world).

    1. I often come across completely baffling stuff in books written during WWI or WWII. I think there has been a singularity. We’re on the other side.

      1. I wouldn’t be surprised. We’re probably still too close to it to realize.but I suspect it’s going to be something like the internet that gets seen as the singularity. Or at least *this* singularity

      2. Steve Stirling played with that a bit in _Conquistador_.

        Setup/summary, for those who haven’t read it:

        A small group (mostly vets from one unit led by their failed-southern-aristocrat captain) gets a Gate to other-timeline California at the end of WW2.

        The explorers set up a mining shell company to hide the source of their funds, exploit the richest California gold mines, and use the money to set up their own small country centered around the Gate (in the SF Bay area).

        The story picks up ~70 years later. Two recent-military vet Fish and Game Wardens stumble onto the secret and get kidnapped to the Other Side to keep them from proving it. And a big part of their disorientation is how normal everything looks and feels . . . until the differences of attitude crop up.

        Most of the Other Side population emigrated in several waves in the late ’40s to early `60s, and slowed to a trickle thereafter. Social norms and expectations remained largely unchanged. Families still tend to large baby-boom era numbers of children, the male/female social roles are very separate, and views on things like risk and remaining native tribes are . . . quite different than they are in our current society.

        What made the book so effective, I think, was the fun-house mirror nature of the society. Assumptions based on our own social expectations might be quite right . . . or disastrously wrong. Mixed in with the repellent bits were other things that, subjectively, seemed preferable to our current norms. And the mental whiplash moments generally supported, rather than detracted, from the storytelling.

        Despite one side being arguably far more sympathetic than the other, the book had neither pure heroes or pure villains.

        I’ve always been a bit sad that this was a one-off work.

        1. I’ve never read that one, but yes, it would be a fascinating and disorienting experience.

          Hell, it’s close enough to that moving from Australia to the USA. Very close in a lot of ways, but there are enough differences that I still get tripped up after 11 years here.

        2. There’s one thing you can say for S.M. Stirling: The man can write some very attractive “baddies”, that’s for damn sure. The whole Draka timeline? I’ll grant that it’s a bit of an unlikely wankfest at some points, but for the love of mike, has anyone else ever managed to make the bad guys as sympathetic as Stirling did with them?

          I have to admit I caught myself rooting for the Draka a couple of times, especially in “Marching Through Georgia”. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to make some very horrid people entirely sympathetic.

          The other good ones he’s done are the one-offs set in the universe where an asteroid strike takes out Europe and the Americas, leaving an India-based British Empire. Then, there’s the Venusian and Martian homages to the pulps. I’d buy any sequels to those automatically.

          That Draka trilogy, though… Simply as an exercise in “How to write sympathetic villains…”, those books are worth a read. If only for the craft.

          1. yes indeed. The Draka are very problematic to read about and Stirling does write good villains in general.

            1. The other, more disturbing trick that he managed was in making me want to root for the Nazis, and feeling a bit of pity for them–Nobody deserves to “pass under the yoke” for the Draka, even them.

              I don’t know why it was, but somehow the storyline and the characters he wrote managed to overpower the massive historical implausibility of the whole thing. He managed to make the bad guys both understandable, and sympathetic figures, and even as they were doing “things beyond the pale”, you went right along with it. I honestly can’t think of another book that pulled me along into things that way, with the exception of J.N. Stroyar’s The Children’s War. Which is another good book for pulling you into something horrible.

              Somehow, when you think about those works after the fact, they’re far more disturbing than some stuff that’s ostensibly written as horror. Which is interesting–I only wish I could write the antagonist half as well as these two authors manage.

  6. And with the exception of your elemental Evil … and the barking mad … villains are – or bloody well should be – people who would be the hero if you wrote the book from their perspective (and if you ask any self-respecting villain, they’ll tell you that you damn well should be writing the book from their perspective).

    I kind of agree, but kind of disagree, or maybe am saying it in a different way….

    A villain should be someone that’d be a hero, or at least a protagonist, if you accept their perspective.

    “Those guys over there aren’t really people” for example, or “executing an entire planet is acceptable.” (Vader, for the last one; the first one is pretty general, since ALL of the cool kids accept that the guys over there are poeple….well, for the characters they classify as those guys over there.)

    1. If the author knows what they’re doing, accepting the perspective is going to happen. The trick lies in pulling the reader so deep into the character’s perspective that they can *be* that character while they’re reading.

      Let’s face it, under normal circumstances would you consider someone who became famous for impaling people to be a hero point of view?

      1. I’m a bad person to ask.

        I have big “No. Not acceptable” buttons in my brain-pattern, and if folks violate them it doesn’t matter if they were cool up to that point, or even if it was built up as OK; either the author will build up in a way that’s not acceptable to me, or they’ll try to pull a fast one with the stuff that went before.

        It’s not a problem with the author, it’s just that I over think stuff and there’s no way from here to there in it. Slowly torturing people to death by impaling them is among the “no way” things.

        1. You probably don’t want to read Impaler then. Because Vlad is the hero of that book.

          I’ve read books where the whole thing was done so well that even though I was uncomfortable with the way the lead character acted, I could follow the reasoning for it and accept it as something that person would do in that situation. Even if the prospect of someone *actually* doing it was somewhere between terrifying and sickening.

          1. *nod* I’ve read several books where I could follow the reasoning, recognize it’s what a rational person would do in that situation with all the offered stuff accepted… and still reject it, because it’s just wrong.

            Like I said, I’m a bad person to ask.

            I suspect part of it may be a matter of what personal demons you’ve battled and rejected– if you have never been tempted to something, you’re not going to have as strong of a rejection of similar things. (I KNOW that I’ve got a temptation to view people as objects or idiots, and it’s generally on my mind. Someone without that problem is less likely to do so. Sort of like, oh, someone who is a member of Courage not reading AFGM because it appeals to something they must reject to follow their own course.)

            1. I don’t know that it’s necessarily a case of “never been tempted”, but yes. Everyone has their weaknesses and hot buttons.

              1. *wry* It’s entirely possible that you’ve had more temptations, and are just less… ‘risk adverse’ than I am.

                Folks will draw their own lines, after all. I’m not saying such stories are EVIL, just that they’re not for folks with this or that temptation.

        2. YMMV applies here of course, but I think there’s a difference between sentencing a person to a very painful death as a deterrent (which IIRC Kate’s Vlad did it for) and a person who orders such a death because he enjoys seeing people suffer.

          Both can be bad but the second is worse.

          Still as I said, YMMV. [Smile]

    1. Sorry, her brand of Satanism was nothing like modern Satanism. IE she valued the same sort of things that a Christian would.

    2. As I recall part of what made that workable was the way that brand of Satanism held that Satan was the good guy, the Bible was all propaganda, and Satan was after freedom of choice where God wanted absolute obedience (I may be wrong. It’s been a long time since I read those books).

      1. Incorrect, Satan has the only loyal angel. The other angels had imprisoned God. While the stories in the Bible that Satan was the rebel against God were false, most of the moral teachings in the Bible were still valid. Their belief was that by living a good life, they were aiding to free God. Which is why they had no problems with the Christians in that universe. The Christians obviously thought they were mistaken about Satan but apparently had no complaints about how those Satanists lived their lives.

        1. It may have been Burst as well. It was definitely Ringo in the Prince Roger series

        2. It could be. It’s been a long while – and I’ve played with some ideas along that line myself, so I could easily have confused things.

  7. It was a quick comment, without any research except off the top. It was I’m sure the Cromwell that created the ‘veil’ in Ireland for Elizabeth. I’m not real interested in English history- seeing as how my family were land owners in Ireland at the time. Our land was given to the Cumberland immigrants that took over. However, my son went to Ireland a few years ago on a job exchange. Found Glissons all over, stayed at a family inn. Was treated like one of the family and enjoyed the hospitality. So, I guess the family recovered.

  8. So is it a bad thing that I find your Vlad perfectly normal? Well other than the whole having to drink blood thing.

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